El Salvador 2009

An image flashes across the screen of pretty young women.  They’re dressed in red T-shirts, wave a red flag, and run towards the camera.  A voice intones, “Let us all participate in the great party of hope!  Change is coming!”  The image then shifts to a dapper young man with glasses who is thronged by enthusiastic crowds.

Meet Mauricio Funes, bane of the U.S. foreign policy establishment and the likely next President of El Salvador as of March, 2009.  Funes’ party, the FMLN (or Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front), is running television ads such as these in an effort to appeal to the young generation and roll back the political right which has dominated the country’s politics for decades.

Funes is a former commentator for CNN International and for years had a popular daily show called The Interview with Mauricio Funes which wasbroadcast on national television.  Well known amongst his compatriots, he is arguably El Salvador’s most respected journalist. A frequent critic of government abuses, Funes quickly developed a reputation as a political crusader.

As the so-called “Pink Tide” sweeps through South America 2009 is fast sizing up as a momentous political year for El Salvador, a Massachusetts sized nation of some six 6 million people.  Like Barack Obama, Funes is poised, youthful and inspiring.  He even has a similar campaign slogan: “Cambio” or “Change.”  Like the presumptive nominee of the Democratic Party, Funes is already drawing large crowds.  He is currently leading in public opinion surveys against his main political rivals.

The U.S. left doesn’t know much about Funes, but that’s hardly surprising given the political trends of the past fifteen years.  During the 1980s, in the midst of the country’s civil war, the FMLN was a cause célèbre for the U.S. left.  But once the U.S.-backed counter-insurgency war ended and FMLN guerrillas demobilized and formed their own political party, radicals focused their attention elsewhere.  El Salvador dropped off the media horizon.

The small Central American nation is about to leap back into the headlines, however.

A victory for the FMLN would further embolden Hugo Chávez of Venezuela and continue Central America’s drift towards the center left, already underway with the return of Daniel Ortega of the Sandinista Party in Nicaragua and the election of Álvaro Colom Caballeros in Guatemala.  If a solid pro-Chávez column of smaller nations emerges in the region this could prove to be a difficult pill for Washington to swallow.

ARENA: “The Reds Will Die”

When you consider just how entrenched the right wing has become in El Salvador, Funes’ political rise is even more remarkable.

Ever since 1992, the year El Salvador’s horrific civil war ended, ARENA (or Nationalist Republican Alliance) has reigned supreme in election after election.  The party was founded by right wing death squad leader Roberto D’Aubuisson, held to be one of the intellectual authors behind the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero in 1980.  Many see ARENA, whose party colors are red, white and blue, as modeled on the U.S. Republican party but with even stronger nationalist overtones.

The hymn of the party touts El Salvador as the tomb where “the Reds will die.”

By the early 1990s, with the international left now ignoring the political story in El Salvador, ARENA consolidated its control through the ballot box.

Remaking the Party

Fearing relatiation from Washington, Funes has bent over backwards to placate the U.S.  He has, for example, met with State Department officials as well as members of Congress and reassured them that he is no radical.

Meanwhile, Funes has declared that El Salvador should not scrap use of the dollar by returning to its previous currency, the colón.  Funes says that “dollarization” and the adoption of the Central American Free Trade Agreement in 2006 have had negative effects, such as inflation and unfavorable competition for small-scale farmers, but that it is too late to scrap these policies.

The former media commentator seeks to remake the FMLN into a pragmatic political party.  At rallies, he doesn’t sing the party’s anthem or wear the traditional red colours, preferring to campaign in a crisp white guayabera shirt.  It’s a symbolic move designed to contrast himself with many in the party who still wear fatigues and brandish pictures of Che Guevara and Soviet flags at campaign rallies.

ARENA President Antonio Saca, whose term ends next year, has questioned the FMLN’s supposed moderation. “If it flies like a duck, swims like a duck and eats like a duck, it’s a duck. The FMLN is a communist party. Its ideas haven’t changed,” he has remarked.

Demonizing Funes by Linking Him to Chávez

Despite such dismissive rhetoric, ARENA is fearful that Funes may not go down to electoral defeat like his FMLN predecessors.  Facing a possible debacle in March, the Salvadoran right and Washington have gone into overdrive, trying to tarnish Funes by linking him to Hugo Chávez of Venezuela.  ARENA in fact has accused Funes of being a “little Chávez.”

Earlier this year, U.S. Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell warned Congress that he expected Chávez to provide “generous campaign funding” to Funes.  Similar U.S. national security reports, later exposed as false and comprised of politically-manipulated intelligence, were used by the Bush White House to justify its preemptive war against Iraq in 2003.

Nevertheless, ARENA President Antonio Saca pounced on the report, remarking that this act of “interference” would be “unacceptable.” He even ordered an investigation into the matter and, in another high profile move, recalled El Salvador’s diplomatic envoy from Caracas.

On the other hand, Saca apparently views electoral intervention by the United States government as not only acceptable, but welcomed. In a November 2007 press conference with President Bush, Saca stated that the U.S. “can help out a lot in preventing citizen support for certain proposals in the upcoming elections.”

Funes has denied any links to the Venezuelan government, and Chávez has scoffed at McConnell’s accusations.  The Venezuelan leader said the FMLN needed no extra financial support as it was a “solid” and “well-organized” party with popular backing. Chávez described the “gringo” allegations as just another U.S. attempt to discredit him and cause divisions in the region.  “It’s a lie,” Chávez said.  “We don’t need to do that, and they don’t need it.”

History Repeating Itself

It’s not the first time that Bush and the Salvadoran right have played the Chávez card.

During the 2004 presidential election in El Salvador, the Bush administration was nervous the left might win as Schafik Handal, the FMLN candidate, opposed the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) and was threatening to withdraw El Salvador’s troops from Iraq.  As payback for U.S. support for the counter-insurgency war of the 1980s, ARENA sent 381 soldiers to Iraq in the early stages of the war.  Salvadoran troops generally refrained from front-line fighting and were instead delegated to humanitarian and reconstruction efforts.

In March, 2003 Special White House Assistant Otto Reich, an implacable Chávez foe who met with Dictator-For-a-Day Pedro Carmona in the run-up to the 2002 coup in Venezuela, declared that the United States would reevaluate its relationship with “an El Salvador led by a person who is an admirer of Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez.”  The red-baiting tactics instilled fear in the Salvadoran electorate, which no doubt worried about a return to combative relations with the United States.  Handal went down to crushing defeat, winning just 38% of the vote to ARENA candidate Saca’s 58%.

Entrenched Trade Relationship

With a more charismatic, media-savvy candidate at the helm, 2009 could be different for the FMLN.  But if Funes were to actually win, what might be the future of Salvadoran-U.S. relations?

The FMLN leader would find it difficult, if not impossible, to take an antagonistic position towards the United States.  The young politician would enter office with El Salvador’s trade relations with the United States already well established: in 2006 the two countries signed a free trade agreement providing El Salvador with preferential access to U.S. markets.

El Salvador exports everything from textiles to apparel to shoes and processed foods to the United States, and Funes certainly wouldn’t want to jeopardize such a vital trade relationship. Indeed, right now the U.S. is El Salvador’s most important market, purchasing 57.1% of the Central American nation’s goods.  El Salvador in turn receives more than 40% of its imports from the U.S.

The Iraq-El Salvador Connection

Nevertheless, Funes may take some punitive measures against Washington.  He has stated for example that one of his first decisions as President would be to withdraw Salvadoran troops from Iraq.  ARENA is now paying a high political price for its loyalty to Washington: polls have shown that a majority of the Salvadoran people oppose their country’s troop presence in the Middle East.

While other Central American countries such as Nicaragua and Honduras have long since withdrawn their forces, El Salvador is holding firm and is currently the only Latin American country with forces still deployed in Iraq.  ARENA’s position is that Salvadoran forces will continue their service in Iraq until they “finish what [they have] started.”

Were the Salvadoran troops to leave, such a development would prove insignificant from a military point of view.  However, Funes would succeed in making a symbolic and political point: that El Salvador is no longer Washington’s lackey in Central America.

Chávez and FMLN: Furthering Ties through Oil

In another worrying development for Washington, Funes has said that he would seek friendly ties to Venezuela.  For the two Latin American nations, oil might prove to be highly instrumental in solidifying ties.  Recently, Chávez has undertaken an alliance with Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega by agreeing to supply the Central American nation with discounted oil.  El Salvador is not an oil producer and a Funes administration would no doubt welcome any Venezuelan assistance to meet its energy needs.

Indeed, the FMLN has been steadily building up its relationship with the Chávez government over the last several years.  At the local level FMLN mayors set up ENEPASA, a joint venture energy company which signed an energy deal with Venezuela in 2006.   The initiative is designed to provide less expensive fuel to El Salvador’s drivers.

Clearly there was more to the deal than just providing cheap gas.

The FMLN seeks to rebuff ARENA President Saca and his neo-liberal economic approach by laying the groundwork for closer integration through ALBA, the Bolivarian Alternative to the Americas.  The plan, initiated by Chávez several years ago, seeks to counteract the corporately driven U.S. Free Trade Area of the Americas and promote barter trade and solidarity amongst left wing Latin American countries.

When FMLN mayors signed the agreement in Caracas, Chávez suggested that money the Salvadoran municipalities saved on energy could be used to subsidize public transport and food prices. Under the terms of the agreement, cities pay 60% of their fuel bill within 90 days.  The rest may be paid in barter for agricultural and other locally made products or in cash over a 25-year period.

Chávez used the moment to criticize U.S. trade deals like the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA).  “They’re making deals with the devil, the devil himself,” Chávez said, in one of his typical rhetorical flourishes.

Over the past two years, Venezuela has exported thousands of barrels of diesel to El Salvador under the new deal.  The oil is sold by gas stations bearing a special non-corporate, “white flag” emblem.

The Legacy of Neo-Liberalism: Organized Crime and Maquiladoras

There is little doubt that under a Funes administration, much of the energy integration with Venezuela would continue.  But how likely is a Pink Tide sweep in Central America in the first place and a decisive FMLN win in 2009?

Judging from recent political trends, ARENA’s political monopoly is jeopardized.  The Salvadoran people are tired of the right’s relentless charge towards neo-liberal policies including privatization and shredding of labor protections for public sector workers.  In particular, ARENA’s recent attempt to privatize the health care system proved deeply unpopular and was beaten back by the likes of doctors and nurses supported by the FMLN.

Poverty is soaring and organized crime has reached epidemic proportions in the country.  In response, the police and military have allegedly organized vigilante groups that orchestrate “social cleansing” of criminals.  In a move to further emulate the Republican Party in the U.S., ARENA instituted draconian anti-terror legislation based on the USA Patriot Act in 2006.  ARENA uses the anti-terror legislation to pick up and jail political activists who protest unpopular government moves such as the privatization of water resources.

The agricultural sector meanwhile has been flooded by cheap goods from the U.S. and hasn’t been able to compete; in desperation cooperative farmers have been selling off the land and sending their children to the U.S. to look for work.  Remittances from Salvadorans working in the United States are an important source of income for many families and total almost $4 billion a year. According to the United Nations Development Agency, an estimated 22.3% of families receive such remittances.

For those who don’t receive money from their loved ones abroad in the U.S., one of the few options left is to seek work in the maquiladora sweat shops.  These dismal sewing factories employ hundreds of thousands of workers and pay laborers a scant 80 cents an hour.  Employees have been exposed to horrible conditions such as unhealthy air and water, large amounts of forced overtime and frequent dismissals for those who get the wrong idea and support labor unions.

The Road to 2009

Because of ARENA’s pursuit of such unpopular policies, the stage seems set for a big left win in March.

What might we expect from a Funes administration?  Though Funes has distanced himself somewhat from the party rank and file, there is a great ideological affinity between Venezuela and the FMLN.  Funes would probably seek to put a break on the neo-liberal policies of the past, and has said that he supports the notion of government-funded social programs like those backed by Chávez and his allies.

“Up until now, I haven’t been the hunter being hunted,” political novice Funes has said. “But if I myself say that public figures need to be scrutinized, how can I reject that same scrutiny?”

Expect more than mere scrutiny in the following months.

Having fought for twelve long years to defeat the FMLN militarily, Washington is not about to give up now.  Count on ARENA and its U.S. patrons in the White House to launch an all out red-baiting assault to prevent the FMLN from coming to power through the ballot box and thereby halting the further spread of the Pink Tide which is sweeping through Central America.

NIKOLAS KOZLOFF is the author of Hugo Chávez: Oil, Politics, and the Challenge to the U.S. (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), and Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave Macmillan, April 2008).








NIKOLAS KOZLOFF is the author of the upcoming No Rain In the Amazon: How South America’s Climate Change Affects The Entire Planet (Palgrave Macmillan, April 2010). Visit his website, senorchichero.